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Monday, April 28, 2008

Violence

I've lived in 3 different countries in my life time, two of them extremely violent nations, one quite peace loving. Last week I finished reading 19 Minutes by Jodi Picoult, a compelling story about a high school shooting that takes place in the United States, which happens to be one of the violent countries I've lived in. This week I finished reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, a very famous Swedish author whose story was set in Sweden, the peaceful nation that I now live in. Years ago I read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a famous Colombian author, so hence it is Colombia which completes the trifecta of countries I've lived in. Colombia falls into the violent place to live category. I don't recall the Colombian story being laced with violence but the other two were. 19 minutes had my stomach in knots for much of the read. It chronicled the lives of school children, one who seemed destined to be outcast from the start. It was painful to read about the bullying, the lack of adult intervention, the deep, wounding pain that this young boy experienced almost from the beginning days of his socialization process. Of course, equally painful was reading about the school shooting and the chaos that ensued in the aftermath of such a horrific event. That this novel was fiction, yet based on events that do unfold in the US is pretty hard to absorb. (I liked the book, a lot. I did, however, hate the ending. I think generally, Picoult weaves a great story, then ends poorly.)
We moved to Sweden just before the Columbine shooting. Since I was outside looking in at the US at that point, I processed that entire experience through very different eyes. America is a violent nation. That is a sad piece of our national idenity. One man from New Zealand once remarked to me that "he would never move his family to the US. Kids shoot their mates there." Such is the perception from those who live in countries where gun violence isn't on the radar. I have a hard time understanding why people want to protect the right to bear assault weapons. You'll hear people say, "I've got to protect myself. If 'they' have them, then I need them." I don't buy it. Who in their right mind really wants to shoot another living being, even if they themselves are being threatened? I'd rather die at the hands of a gunman, then live with having killed someone else. Why can't we figure out how to stop gun violence from being a so called solution in our society?
My life in Medellin, Colombia was for all intensive purposes, delightful. Great city, great climate, great food, lovely people. Except of course for the Colombian Drug Cartel who were housed in my fair city during the years that I lived there. The violence in Colombia was totally different than the violence we see in the US. The machine gun presence is overwhelming. They are everywhere. My building was guarded by an armed guard, a fact by the way, that didn't bring me a great deal of comfort. I hated the presence of heavy artillery that surrounded me in this most lovely of places. The thing about the violence in Colombia was that it was directed violence. None of this random act of violence business. If you were messed up with the drug cartel, or if you had political influence, etc. then you were a target. If you were an American high school teacher living in Medellin, they were not so interested in you. So while I never felt personally threatened or nervous about being shot at, the violence that surrounded me impacted my psyche in dramatic ways. One morning on an early walk, I stumbled across two guys on a motorcycle who had been shot down. A grenade went off in my next door neighbor's backyard. I heard shots being fired on a regular basis. I didn't feel personally unsafe, but the presence of violence around me was palpable. I eventually needed a break from a culture that had violence embedded into its very center. I needed the noise of violent shooting to cease. I was lucky. I could move back to the US where I might get gunned down at McDonald's but at least I could escape the startling bang of guns shooting or grenades exploding and for better or worse, I didn't see the presence of guns all around me. Even so, I hated seeing how many stories during the nightly news told of bad outcomes in gun related situations. The presence of armed guards in Colombian society has not cut back on the violence. The "right" to bear arms has not created a more peaceful safe society in the US. Rather, in both situations, the presence of armed guards and the "right" perpetuate violence.
The violence in the Swedish story was totally different as it was rooted in violence against women at the hands of sadistic men. Numerous accounts of kidnap, torture, rape and abuse were embedded within the pages of this exciting thriller. It shook me up at bit, I must admit. Sweden is safe and the presence of violent crime is not a real and present threat. Up until recently assault crimes such as rape and battery were almost never heard of. This is, sadly, on the rise. Even so, it has been a great respite to live in a city where you aren't internally afraid every time you are outside. What this novel did illuminate for me however is the presence of domestic crimes against women. You don't hear much about this here in Sweden. There are bold media campaigns against school bullying, but violence against women is hardly reported at all. Does this mean it doesn't exist or does it point to something more insidious: that the women don't know how to report it? One line in the book chilled me. It said, "Women disappear all the time. No one even notices." Not exactly a stunning byline for a nation that considers itself a leader in equality concerns for men and women. I read this book for my Book Club. I'm anxious to hear from some of the women who have a clearer eye into the unwritten lines of Swedish culture as to whether this story is pure fiction or fiction based on certain realities. I hope for the former. I fear the latter. Sweden is a peace loving nation, but their inability to give voice to the ugly things in their society perpetuates a different kind of sickness than the gun presence does in the US. Both cultures need to figure out how to give voice to the actions and attitudes that tear at the fabric of the very high quality of life most should enjoy in both the US and Sweden. Our inability to accurately articulate the violence in our societies and seek to change it does not bode well for our countries, our kids, our communities.
We all need to feel empowered and valued. Unhappy people who feel powerless and outcast will find ways to assert their authority and lord it over another. The particularly disturbed will do this through violence towards another. Their pain comes pouring forth in act of hurt and violence and often a sense of revenge that is directed toward a member of the human race, the race that has inflicted such agony upon their lives from the beginning. It's not an excuse for their behavior. It's an attempt at understanding why these violent acts come to fruition in order to better equip ourselves to intervene before the perpetrators wreak havoc in the lives of other while wrecking even further their own chance to understand how to enjoy life in community.
The violence must stop, but how?